Bush Struggles With Disaster Relief

Administration cannot meet Florida's expectations after hurricane

PRESIDENT Bush has mobilized the federal government to lead what may be the largest recovery effort in modern United States history in the wake of Hurricane Andrew.

But the effort is a scramble to catch up with public expectations that federal agencies were not prepared to meet when the hurricane hit shore.

In an election year, for a president burdened with a reputation for not caring enough about the problems of ordinary Americans, meeting those public expectations is imperative.

In the two weeks since Andrew landed, a parade of Cabinet secretaries and agency heads have trooped through the storm-stricken areas. Federal assistance ranges from supplying Army MREs (meals ready-to-eat) to suspending home mortgage payments.

The president has promised that the federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost of rebuilding south Florida's public infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and fire stations - a $5 billion to $15 billion commitment.

But the ad hoc, disorganized nature of the relief and recovery effort is readily apparent.

Confused local officials in south Florida, wondering how to get federal disaster assistance and lacking a single voice of authority to guide them, have been calling their counterparts in South Carolina - who coped with the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo three years ago - looking for direction.

Hugo was the nation's most expensive hurricane disaster until Andrew, which has surpassed Hugo several times over. But both disasters have seen many of the same problems with federal involvement.

"It is not evident that they learned a lesson," says Bob Cates, South Carolina's disaster manager for Hugo.

If South Carolinians see a sadly familiar disorder in the hurricane response, they also see vastly more presidential attention being lavished on south Florida than they got.

"I'm flat-out amazed," says Steve Mullins, assistant managing editor of the Charleston Post and Courier, of one story about Bush administration responsiveness in south Florida. "There is a huge difference, an enormous difference in response, and people here see it very clearly."

Roughly two days had passed after Andrew's Florida landfall before two things registered at the White House.

First, officials at all levels began to realize the massive scope of the damage. Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, for example, had delayed requesting US Army assistance until the fourth day, hoping the National Guard could handle the task.

Second, the president and his aides realized that the public expected a level of leadership in disaster relief and recovery that the federal government was unprepared to deliver.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), charged with assisting in long-term disaster recovery, considers immediate disaster response to be the job of local government and private agencies.

BUT a more front-line federal responsibility has become inevitable. With its military, centralized authority, and ability to borrow money, the federal government has unmatched capacity for broad disaster response.

Further, the public has come to expect a larger federal role. This sentiment was voiced most compellingly by Kate Hale, Dade County's director of emergency services, on the fourth day after Andrew hit. She emerged from a meeting with US Transportation Secretary Andrew Card, appointed by Bush the day before to oversee relief efforts, and asked emotionally where the "cavalry" was.

The federal government, says Robert Wilkerson, a crisis-management consultant and former FEMA official, "has lagged behind public expectations."

With the several days of advance warning before Andrew hit Florida, Mr. Wilkerson says, emergency supplies at least could have been gathered and directed to southern Florida, arriving by the third day after Andrew, when Secretary Card got there to assess needs.

So even though the response was moving according to plan, it represented a failure of sorts. "At the point people have to carry shotguns to protect their personal property, government has failed," Wilkerson says.

The political fallout for President Bush is still an open question. His active response can probably neutralize the early complaints about slowness to react. But the recovery over the next couple of months presents more political risks for him than opportunities.

Standards are enormously high for the effort and compassion expected of a president in cases like this, says Republican strategist and pollster William McInturff. Especially since failures will make more news than successes, he adds, "it's hard to imagine a smash home run."

The hurricane has already cost the Bush campaign the traditional week or two of post-convention glow in the news.

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